Judaism: Vayigash: Master of Self
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
Suppose you were cut off at the supermarket checkout counter, would you make a scene and or take it in stride?
If you would take it in stride, let me ask you this. Suppose someone cut to the front of your line and you remained silent, but the person in front of you caused a scene and forced the offender to the back of the line, would you admire the scene-maker for his courage? Also, would you view the silent majority who simply let it go as spineless, willing to let others walk all over them?
On the surface it appears that the scene-maker is strong and courageous whereas the others are weak and non assertive, but upon reflection we realize the opposite is true. The one who just doesn’t care is truly strong. The assertive one knows how to overpower others, but the quiet ones master themselves.
Let’s explore the scene-maker’s outrage. If the scene maker were asked to explain his outrage he would likely point to his busy calendar and claim that he couldn’t afford to be delayed. This might be a perfect face saving response, but it is false. The proof is that battling the offender cost him more time than letting it pass would. The intensity of his outrage is also proof. If it were merely a matter of scheduling, the scene-maker would be annoyed, not outraged. His rage implies something more.
It is possible that he does it for the principle – simply because it is wrong to cut off an entire group of rule abiding people who wait their turn politely. This explanation sounds noble, but if it were true he would grow just as angry when others are cut off as he does when he is cut off. That he doesn’t display the same kind of intensity when others are cut off, tells us he is bothered by more than just a principle.
What the scene-maker is hiding and is too ashamed to admit is that he is outraged because he is personally offended. He turns this into a ‘me against him.’ I was online and ahead of him and he cut me off unceremoniously. It is galling that he gets served ahead of me even though I got on line before him.
Now let me ask you this, does this sound strong and courageous or is it somewhat childish? When we were children we complained bitterly when our sibling got a candy and we didn’t. It wasn’t really the candy that bothered us, it was the fact that someone else got it and we did not. If I can’t have one, no one else should either and if someone else can have one, why can’t I?
That kind of thinking is normal for a child, but somewhat shameful in an adult. This is why the scene-maker went to great lengths to camouflage his true motive by manufacturing false, but somewhat more dignified reasons for his outrage. In fact, it is likely that his subconscious camouflaged the reason even from him, leaving him unaware of precisely why his emotions were twisted in knots.
The others on line, who truly didn’t care and weren’t rattled by the offender, simply didn’t see it as an offense. Just like you don’t care about the candy you fretted over as a child so too do you no longer worry that someone got ahead of you or the better of you. It simply doesn’t matter. This is not weak, it is big. They are truly big in spirit and mind.
There is a word for this, free will. Free will is often misconstrued as the freedom to do as you please, but that only means that you are confined to your internal triggers and aren’t free to overrule or overcome them. That’s not freedom, that’s conscription. Free will means to be freed from self, free to will something we don’t want, free of our emotional immaturity and internal triggers.
So long as we are confined to our ego and insecurities we are unable to mature and grow emotionally. We might accomplish great things. We might become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, celebrated surgeons or famous authors, but inside we remain immature. We conceal this sad truth from all, but those closest to us, but we remain confined.
It is remarkable that the greatest achievers often get bent out of shape by the smallest slight. The temper tantrums of the high and mighty are nothing short of awesome and often provoked by trivial offenses that they shouldn’t even have noticed. They notice because they are prisoners of ego. It seems incongruous that such great achievers can be so petty, but when you realize that their lives and successes are driven by ego you are no longer surprised to learn that they are hostages of their ego.
One who is content with life and has no need to reach the highest rung has overcome himself. He doesn’t take himself seriously and can admit fault easily. Such people can overcome their ego and let perceived injustices pass. They don’t get caught up in a vise of rage. They remain calm and effective.
Such people are also able to overcome their own vices. It is astounding how many powerful people fall prey to drugs, alcohol or other meaningless vices. These people have so much to lose and are in such powerful positions, yet they are powerless over themselves. It makes perfect sense. The more powerful your personality, the more difficult it is to overpower yourself.
The person who looks beyond himself and is not caught up with his own image is truly powerful. Such people can connect with others outside themselves and can truly transcend themselves. They are capable of meeting their challenges head on and admitting fault where they see it. They are not self obsessed; their concerns lay with causes much greater than themselves. They see themselves as instruments of G-d’s greater good.
Joseph and Judah
We now understand why Judah was subservient to Joseph in Egypt despite his superior strength. When Joseph met his brothers in Egypt, he concealed his identity and acted as the viceroy of Egypt. When he moved to imprison Benjamin, the youngest of the brothers, Judah threatened to go to war.
Our sages taught that Judah and his brothers could single handedly have defeated the Egyptian army.
Overwhelmed by Judah’s sincerity, Joseph confessed his true identity to his brothers. He brought the entire family to Egypt and provided for them. He never held a grudge against them for selling him into slavery. He forgave them completely and repaid them with kindness.
Judah was the powerful warrior able to overcome menace and foe, but Joseph was the stronger one in that encounter for he had overcome himself. It is no surprise that Joseph ascended to the rank of leadership in Egypt and his brothers became subservient to him. He had achieved the highest form of mastery; master of self.